dr. Heleen Dewitte (PhD)

CRIG member
Heleen Dewitte

Post-doctoral researcher - Lab for General Biochemistry & Physical Pharmacy, Dept. Of Pharmaceutical Sciences (UGent) & Laboratory for Molecular and Cellular Therapy, Dept. of Medical Sciences (VUB)
(PI: prof. Stefaan De Smedt)


Research focus

The focus of our research has been the development of biomaterials for cancer immunotherapy, where a patient's own immune system is harnessed in the battle against cancer. As such, we have developed different strategies to spark antitumor immune responses, all based on the delivery of messenger RNA (mRNA) to immune cells. More specifically, we design biomaterials that allow direct delivery of the mRNA to immune cells (dendritic cells & macrophages) in vivo, in order to develop more universal and cost-effective cancer immunotherapeutics.

For example, we have designed nanoparticles to simultaneously deliver mRNA encoding tumor antigens and immunostimulants to dendritic cells and macrophages, this inducing  potent protective immune responses (in mice models).

Another approach makes use of ultrasound-traceable and ultrasound-triggered drug delivery systems called microbubbles. These microbubbles can be loaded with a plethora of different therapeutics, including nucleic acids such as mRNA. Upon injection, ultrasound imaging can be used to track these bubbles during their migration to the draining lymph nodes, a hot-spot for immune cells. There, stronger ultrasound pulses can be used to locally disrupt the microbubbles resulting in a localized delivery of the mRNA.


Heleen Dewitte obtained her master’s degree in pharmaceutical sciences – drug development at Ghent University (Belgium) in 2010. In 2015, she obtained her PhD in pharmaceutical and medical sciences at Ghent University and the Vrije Universiteit Brussels under the joint supervision of Prof. Stefaan De Smedt and Prof. Karine Breckpot. She is currently working as an FWO-sponsored post-doctoral fellow at the same institutions. During her research, she has has been a visiting researcher at the University of Virginia (Prof. Alexander Klibanov's lab, USA) and le Centre de Recherche des Cordeliers (Prof. Guido Kroemer's lab, France).

She received several awards for her research, including the ‘Therapeutic Use of Microbubbles’ oral presentation award (Rotterdam, The Netherlands), the 'Jan Feijen poster prize' at the 13th European Symposium on Controlled Drug Delivery, the 'Therapeutic Vaccines' award on the 14th CIMT Cancer Immunotherapies annual meeting and the 2017 National Award of the Belgian Society of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Heleen is also active in science communication, with participations in the Flemish PhD cup, Science Battle and several other events where research can be communicated to a broader audience.

Key publications

  • Theranostic mRNA-loaded microbubbles in the lymphatics of dogs: implications for drug delivery. Theranostics, 2015 (PMID: 25553101)
  • The potential of antigen and TriMix sonoporation using mRNA-loaded microbubbles for ultrasound-triggered cancer immunotherapy. Journal of Controlled Release, 2014 (PMID: 25151979)
  • Combinatorial strategies for the induction of immunogenic cell death. Frontiers in Immunology, 2015 (PMID: 25964783)
  • Choose your models wisely: how different murine bone marrow-derived dendritic cell protocols influence the success of nanoparticulate vaccines in vitro. Journal of Controlled Release, 2014 (PMID 24960224)
  • mRNA-Lipoplex loaded microbubble contrast agents for ultrasound-assisted transfection of dendritic cells. Biomaterials, 2011 (PMID 21868088)
  • Particle-mediated Intravenous Delivery of Antigen mRNA Results in Strong Antigen-specific T-cell Responses Despite the Induction of Type I Interferon. Molecular Therapy Nucleic Acids, 2016 (PMID: 27327138)
  • Hitchhiking nanoparticles: Reversible coupling of lipid-based nanoparticles to cytotoxic T lymphocytes. Biomaterials, 2016 (PMID: 26606450)
  • Evading innate immunity in nonviral mRNA delivery: don't shoot the messenger. Drug Discovery Today, 2016 (PMID: 26210957)
  • Design and evaluation of theranostic perfluorocarbon particles for simultaneous antigen-loading and ¹⁹F-MRI tracking of dendritic cells. Journal of Controlled Release, 2013 (PMID: 2357042)
  • Nanoparticle design to induce tumor immunity and oppose the immunosuppressive tumor microenvironment. Nano Today, 2014 (Journal not indexed on pubmed, but listed on Web of Science: doi 10.1016/j.nantod.2014.10.001)


Contact & links